Author's Notes: Thanks for taking the time to read my ongoing story, Den Of Thieves. The story itself has many influences, from George Orwell's '1984' and Ed Brubaker's 'Sleeper' to Sun Tzu's 'Art Of War', A Fistful Of Dollars (and thusly, Yojimbo), The Roots Of Evil (by Ervin Staub) and a wide array of spy movies and most popular comic series you've read over the years (including 'Batman', 'Uncanny X-Men' and 'The Watchmen'). There's even some video game influences in there like 'Thief: The Metal Age' and 'Hitman'. My hope is to take these many influences and combine them into a somewhat unique stew.
Just so everyone knows, this story is set nearly four decades from now, in a (hopefully) alternate universe that will never come to pass. Is the setup inspired by the events of today? Sure, in as much as they are also inspired by George Orwell's '1984' or Alan Moore's 'V For Vendetta'. This is a world where politicians have used the fear of the people to set up a fascist state and heroes are nothing more than enforcers of the status quo, hardly the superheroes comic book fans have come to expect.
I'm not advocating any political viewpoint except that of the moderate. Part of the story told here is a cautionary tale against any extreme viewpoint, whether you come from the left or the right side of the political round table. Too far right or too far left and you have what I consider a threat to human free will.
Oliver Reed and those he conspires with are likewise not role models. They aren't heroes. He's amoral. He doesn't go out of his way to hurt anyone. In fact, he'd rather go around you entirely, but he won't hesitate to kill you if you insist on getting in his way. Of course, everything comes in degrees, and when compared to some his peers, he's almost tolerable.
My policy on reviews is thus: I don't really encourage or discourage anyone from giving feedback in the form of reviews or personal emails, but I do have a really thick skin when it comes to reader comments and want nothing more than to improve my skills, so I appreciate any input if you've got the time. As long as your feedback is constructive, it can be as positive or negative as you feel is necessary.
Den Of Thieves
Chapter 1: Partners In Crime
By: John Westcott
© Copyrighted by John Westcott.
As I have recently had issues with people stealing my stories and selling them as their own, I feel I have to put an explicit copyright warning on my stories. Be advised that I have properly documented and protected my copyright of these characters and situations and have enlisted a lawyer to protect them. Any violation of my copyright will result in legal action, beginning with, but not limited to, a cease and desist order. If that fails, further and harsher legal actions will be aggressively pursued to the full extent of the law.
"Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself." - 1984 - George Orwell
"Man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all." - Aristotle
IN THE YEAR 2043...
"There's something I need you to steal for me."
Oliver Reed fought to keep his emotions in check. For a man like Reed, who was well practiced at the art of duplicity, it should have been an easy task, and under normal circumstances it would be. For years Oliver Reed had looked men and women in the eye and told them bold face lies with an olive branch in one hand and a Sai in the other. More often than not, the Sai normally ended up embedded in the back of whomever he was dealing with.
But not with Malevolence.
No one knew his real name. Anyone who ever did know the man behind the hooded cowl died long ago and in a horrible fashion. Malevolence was the greatest criminal mind of his time and the most powerful mutant in the Cabal.
Reed, dressed in a pair of khaki dockers, blue cotton shirt, grey tie and black dress shoes with a business jacket tossed over his shoulder, didn't appear to be the kind of man that would have an audience with Malevolence. Reed was never the flashy type of criminal. He was unlike the others: Widowmaker, Praying Mantis, Nosferatu and the rest.
Even though he'd earned the nickname 'The Wraith' from law enforcement agencies, he'd never meant to adopt such a moniker for himself. He was almost embarrassed when the codename filtered down to the criminal underworld he associated with.
Those 'rogues' - as the newspapers called them - loved to dress up in flashy costumes, flaunting their tatoos and heavy weaponry. Oliver Reed always showed up for his meetings with Malevolence dressed in average casual business clothes. His 'work clothes' he left hidden away, in the Outlands.
Malevolence was so secretive and subtle that no one could remember seeing how his powers worked. Once again, that was no doubt due to the fact that anyone who had seen him use his abilities died not long after. He rarely moved out from behind his glass topped desk anymore, but the mystique that had built up around his special abilities over the years only added to his air of invulnerability. Reed knew that. He understood it, and he adopted that modus operandi for himself.
Only one other man knew the extent of Reed's abilities and he wasn't telling anyone, either. All Malevolence needed to know was that Oliver Reed was a master thief and sometime assassin for hire. In a world rife with thieves and murderers, there was no one better.
Reed used that mystique to his own advantage, allowing rumor and suspicion to build up around him to the extent that no one knew for sure what his powers were, and the rumors often outstripped his true abilities by a wide margin. How could someone stab you in the back when rumor had it you had eyes in the back of your head?
Reed did his best to settle his stomach and draw an impassive mask on his handsome features. Unlike Reed, Malevolence was a powerful and imposing figure.
Malevolence stood at nearly 6 foot 4 inches tall, broad shouldered and covered in rippling muscles under his perfectly white uniform, topped off with a black hooded cowl and cape that cast a long shadow over his dark features. The long scar that cut a swath across his face from the upper left temple across to the lower right hand side of his chin only added to the ominous shadow he cast.
In contrast, Oliver Reed was a lithe and almost lanky figure. Like Malevolence, Reed was in near perfect physical condition, but he lacked the bulky frame that most in his line of work preferred.
Standing at 5 foot 11 inches tall, Malevolence towered over Oliver even as they sat facing each other across the desk. Reed's head was shaved bald, and his brown eyes camouflaged a long buried past. His strong jaw line was steady as he sat before his employer, unlike most, who quivered in the presence of pure Malevolence.
The Cabal was, at this point, a nation spanning organization with their targets set on worldwide influence. It was always surprising to Reed that their offices were located in a nondescript office tower on a main street in Freedom Plaza, in what was formally known as downtown New York City... now known as Old Manhattan.
Malevolence's office was spacious but spartan. He sat behind a glass topped table in a luxurious high-backed leather chair. On one arm of the chair Reed noticed a recessed control panel of some kind. He didn't want to know what the various buttons attached to the panel would do. Knowing Malevolence, they all activated something unspeakable.
Two similar leather chairs awaited Reed on the visitor's side of the desk, but neither possessed the high massaging back that Malevolence enjoyed, nor did they feature any control panels that enabled the user to scar and maim another visitor.
The massive windows that lined the rear of the office wall behind Malevolence were all adorned with drawn blinds that only allowed small slivers of light into the room. The blinds weren't necessary, as every window in the building was a one way mirror coated with a non- reflective surface that deflected all known scanning technology.
Other than that, the only other decoration in the room was a bank of computer monitors along the right wall. Clearly, Malevolence had tapped into the 'Seeing Eye' system, also referred to as 'SI', a virtual army of cameras that lined the streets and even some rooftops of the city, all monitored by the government on the lookout for 'Un-American' activities.
On those computer monitors, Malevolence used the government's own hardware to keep track of both his friends and enemies. Several meta-human 'heros' could be seen on the screens, especially the one particular thorn in all their sides, Ultra. The others: Raptor, Phoenix, Valkyrie, Balder and even Paladin all followed Ultra's lead.
"I hope this is good, Mal. Unlike you, I have a day job, you know?" Reed spoke in an overly familiar tone to his director, a man known for his sterile personality and overt formality. Malevolence appeared unamused.
"How many times have I told you not to call me 'Mal', Oliver?"
"Probably a lot."
"Two hundred and thirty seven times, to be exact."
Reed flashed a smile and a wink. "Wow, I really am a slow learner."
Malevolence's fingers toyed absently with the handle of the mighty broadsword that leaned against his desk. Reed knew that with one swift stroke, Malevolence could use the sword to cleave his skull in two, but he also gambled that it would never happen as long as he was needed for high risk stealth jobs like the one the Cabal had in mind for him now.
Malevolence never kept any papers on his desk. Reed had no idea where the chief villain of villains kept his secrets, possibly in the bank of computers that fed the monitors in his office, but nothing was for sure when it came to him. Be that as it may, Malevolence had all the facts he required locked up in his brain, which appeared to be as powerful as all his other muscles.
"You may not know this, but the department of defense maintains an underground railway that transports military hardware and secrets from one side of the country to the other."
Reed had heard rumors of such a thing, but this was the first time someone else actually confirmed it. If Malevolence was telling him this, it was a sure-fire 100 percent fact.
"And you want me to steal you a conductor's hat, right?"
Malevolence continued on, ignoring Reed's insolence.
"The DOD is moving a top secret case in that train from the city tonight to a base in Virginia somewhere. I can supply you with some of the information you'll need, such as its intended route and a possible access point to the train tunnels, but much of the necessary intel you'll have to find for yourself... or just play it by ear."
Reed's ears perked up. He enjoyed a challenge, but to steal some top secret military intel from the DOD would require explicit plans and precision timing.
"When is the job?"
Reed nearly did a spit-take.
"What? You want me to go out and find your virginity again, too? Because that's about as likely. That kind of job would take weeks, if not months of planning. I didn't get to where I am today by being reckless. There is absolutely no way I can break into a moving train car loaded with President Cutler's jackboots on less the 24 hours planning."
Malevolence was unamused. Oliver wondered if Malevolence had ever cracked a smile in his entire life. Somehow he doubted it.
"That's why I came to you, Oliver. Only you could possibly pull this job off, and I want what's in that case. I assumed you'd enjoy the challenge."
Reed snorted. "Oh, please. I love a challenge. What I hate is dying."
Reed got up from his chair and performed a mock salute to Malevolence before storming toward the exit.
"Nice talking to you, Mal. If you have any reasonable jobs you want me to perform, just let me know."
Reed was almost out the door when Malevolence appealed to his one weakness.
"I will triple the highest fee you have ever charged me."
Reed stopped dead in his tracks. After a moment of contemplation, he turned on his heel and returned to the office suite, taking his customary chair.
"You were saying?"
Malevolence offered a slight nod of his head. It was as close to showing satisfaction as Reed had ever seen him. Malevolence removed a file folder from the folds of his cloak and handed it across the desk to Reed, who opened it to look inside. There were some photographs of a tiny grate in an alleyway and a map showing a section of the underground plans of the city. From the looks of it, the tiny grate accepted water runoff and led deep underground to a tunnel system that sloughed off the extra water to the sea.
There was one point on the map, marked with an 'X', that apparently ran parallel to an underground station where the trains refueled. A small explosive charge placed at the right spot would blow a hole in the tunnel and allow Reed access to the underground depot.
From there he could enter a ventilation shaft and jump right onto the top of the train as it passed by on the tracks. It was risky, but it could work, assuming the DOD didn't have any hidden motion or seismic detectors in the tunnels to ward off exactly this kind of attack. He would also have to avoid the patrolling guards, a feat made more difficult by the fact that he didn't have access to their patrol routes.
The final hurdle would be getting the safe itself open. According to the intel provided by Malevolence, access to the computer password would be through a terminal built directly into the workstation in the train compartment itself. What the actual password was, even Malevolence did not know. Reed knew then that he'd have to enlist the help of his only confidante, Jesse Webb, to get this job done. A chance to break government encryption protocols was a dream of his for years.
"Triple my highest ever fee, huh?" Reed asked.
"That's correct." Malevolence sat across the desk, his meaty index finger held to his pursed lips as he awaited Reed's response.
"The odds of me ending up shot full of holes or in a detainment camp are way higher than me actually succeeding. You do know that, right?"
Malevolence appeared unconcerned.
Reed smiled wickedly at his employer.
"That doesn't bother you a bit does it?"
"Not really," came Malevolence's response.
"Either way you win, I guess," Reed chided.
"So, will you do it?" Malevolence asked in his matter-of-fact manner.
Reed weighed the pros and cons of the situation. If he could pull off such a feat, it would be the hardest, but possibly most rewarding job of his career. He would be a legend, and he liked the idea of being a legend. But more than that, it would help to further his quest to rise higher up in the Cabal, not to mention the fortune in cash he would make from the job.
Overriding all those factors, however, he could only imagine what was in the case itself Malevolence wanted him to steal. To spring this type of job on him in such a manner must have meant that whatever was inside the case had to be crucial to whatever Machiavellian plans Malevolence had underway. Whatever those plans were, Reed needed to discover them. If he could get his hands on the case and see what was inside, he could use it for himself when the time came. That outweighed all the risk involved.
"Okay, Mal. I'm in. I'll get back to you when I have what you want."
Reed tucked the folder into his jacket, which he then tossed back over his shoulder. He was on his way out the door before stopping dead once again and turning to address his employer.
"You know, Mal, you could have just emailed me the job offer and the intel."
From under his hood, Malevolence gave Reed the evil eye.
"And risk the Freedom Party listening in on our communications? If they knew I had knowledge of their transport protocols, I'd have Ultra tearing this building down around my ears."
Reed knew full well that this was the case, but he always enjoyed any opportunity to needle Malevolence about Ultra, his arch-enemy.
"I thought you didn't fear anyone, Mal, even Ultra."
A pregnant pause passed between them. Reed wondered if he had gone too far.
"Watch your tongue, Reed. When I take Ultra down, it will be at a time and place of my choosing."
Reed half-smiled and mumbled under his breath.
Reed was about to leave when Malevolence called out to him. "One moment Oliver. Lest you forget, you work for me. I appreciate that you don't divulge the true nature of your powers to me. I do the same thing myself. Mystery is a power all it's own isn't it? Just don't think you can do as you please with me. Believe it or not, I like you. You speak your mind, but I will have your respect. I've earned it. Remember, if you displease me, I could always hand you over to Freedom Party officials... or even worse..."
Malevolence's hand passed across the desk to the vicinity of his sword. Reed thought to himself that this was it. He had pushed Malevolence too far. He was going to die at the tip of a blade. He was only slightly relieved when Malevolence pressed a button on the arm of his chair and all the disparate views on the monitors changed to a picture of one man, brutally disfigured and beaten almost beyond recognition.
He was hanging upside down in a 'reverse crucifix' position, his arms, what remained of them, outstretched. A thin wire suspended him by his right ankle, cutting through the flesh as he swayed back and forth. His left ankle was missing, as was most of the leg. Copious amounts of blood spilled from his many gaping wounds. His mouth even seemed to be ripped open at the sides, hanging open in a grotesque fashion. His right eye was missing. His nose was slit open. He chest looked like it had been painted with a brush dipped in acid.
"I Could discipline you myself."
Reed tried his hardest to keep his revulsion from showing. His best defense was always a joke of some kind. Perhaps that would keep his horror from peeking out behind his practiced facade.
"Well, Teach, I guess you sure told me. I'll consider myself spanked now. Next thing you know you'll be giving me detention." As quickly as possible without seeming as if he were in a hurry, Oliver Reed stepped out of the office suite and into the anteroom. Like any other businessman, Malevolence kept a secretary, who beamed at him.
This time she was a brunette. Each time Reed came to see his employer, the secretary was a different beautiful woman, but always of a similar type: busty, with full lips, long legs and revealing deep cleavage.
Rumor had it Malevolence employed a small army of women to act as his secretary and he rotated them on a regular basis, that they acted as his harem as well as his first line of defense against intruders to his office. Word was that they each as deadly as they were beautiful. Reed returned the smile and exited quickly.
The rumors about Malevolence's secretaries were just that, rumors, but he imagined that whether they were true or not, those women often elicited secrets from Malevolence's enemies through their feminine charms alone. Even a man as restrained as Reed had to admit that it was difficult not to stop and talk to the dazzling ladies at the reception desk.
Reed knew that behind every door that lined the hallway as he exited the building led to a different type of danger. Some offices housed Malevolence's top lieutenants, such as Widowmaker and Praying Mantis. Reed himself was offered an office space once, but declined. Other offices housed the lesser agents in the Cabal: typical drug lords and enforcers who sold 'protection' and hired muscle when needed, but that wasn't the only type of crime committed in this brave new world.
From the time man first made laws, there were those bound and determined to break them. Such was human nature, Reed imagined, but in this day in age, there were a lot more laws to break than in those simpler times.
Since the time of the 'Petroleum Wars' years ago and the terrorist attacks that led to the Freedom Party's seizure of power, laws were written and rewritten to include a variety of acts now considered 'treasonous' in an attempt to return to a simpler time which, in Reed's mind, never truly existed. Among those acts one could no longer participate in were practicing a religion other than that prescribed by the governing party, an almost fanatical form of Christianity that had little to do with its peace loving origins.
With other religions outlawed, especially Islam, the criminal underworld was there to fill the vacuum. For a steep price, underground places of alternative worship were created, and life continued on as it had for hundreds of years.
Reed passed through the dozens of security scanners that littered the main lobby of the office tower, and past the excess of plain-clothed security forces Malevolence kept on the payroll, before swiping his key-card in the main door and exiting into the busy streets. To the casual observer the office tower was just another faceless corporation, but by hiding in pain sight, Malevolence had craftily constructed a criminal empire in the heart of the city.
"You're really going to try this, aren't you?"
Jesse Webb was about the only man Oliver Reed considered a friend, and even then, Reed doubted he'd do anything even remotely considered honorable for Webb, like take a bullet for him. In these dangerous times, their alliance proved useful, but there was no doubt that they kept secrets from one another. Trust was a commodity rarer than oil these days. Just one slip of the tongue concerning a person's environmental concerns or sexual orientation could land a person in a detainment camp for 'thought realignment'... or even worse, in the Outlands.
"Yeah, I think I am. I can't do it without you, though."
Jesse was a large black man, well over six feet tall, with big hands and strong imposing shoulders. Oliver often thought that Jesse would give Malevolence a run for his money in the 'imposing stature' department.
Reed was a master thief and sometime silent assassin, but Jesse Webb acted as a technical wizard on his behalf. Webb was instrumental in the modifications made to Reed's stealth suit, and proved especially invaluable when it came to hacking computers.
Because this job involved stealing from the DOD, Oliver knew Jesse would prove indispensable. Without his assistance, Oliver figured he stood little to no chance of succeeding in this endeavor.
They were sitting in Jesse's office, sharing a glass of ouzo as Reed worked himself up for this, potentially his most dangerous and most profitable job. The ouzo slid down his throat and warmed his stomach while settling his nerves. As experienced as he was, Reed was no idiot. He knew that the chances of walking away from this job were very slim, as Jesse had now reminded him three times, but the reward was too great to refuse.
They were sitting in the loft apartment Jesse ran in the Outlands called 'The Polka Dot Bikini', commonly referred to by its patrons as 'The Polka Dot'. The apartment was not only Jesse's home, but their base of operations. The Outlands served as a fancy name for walled off ghettos in the core of the city, where those who posed a threat to freedom or practiced 'subversive' ways, were often sent.
It was the last place anyone would look for a master thief like Reed, who lived a double life in the city, away from the streets littered with stripped cars up on blocks and garbage can fires on every corner, surrounded by homeless folk hoping to warm their hands and share a bottle of cheap liquor. It was a known fact that government troops hardly ever entered the Outlands without several squads of backup. The only law practiced in the Outlands was survival of the fittest.
On the main floor beneath them, the slow, grinding bass of a blues band Jesse hired the week previous shook the walls, but through the years Jesse and Oliver had taken pains to soundproof the room with triple thick sheets of sound battens behind every wall and under the floorboards. They had also taken care to setup white noise projectors that made high-tech eavesdropping impossible. This was the one place in the world where they could speak freely.
"Whatever is in this case Malevolence wants, you know as well as I do that it's going to put us on a bulls-eye when you steal it... or should I say 'if' you steal it. Which you probably won't. You'll get caught and they'll torture you and you'll lead them to me. My mother would die if I was branded an enemy of the state."
"You already are an enemy of the state, Jess. Own it and you'll sleep better at night."
They shared a second shot of ouzo before Reed got up and started working the first of three combination locks on a steel door on the far side of the room.
"Yeah, but my mother doesn't know it yet, and I'd hoped she'd never find out, bless her sainted heart."
"You know, I am the guy that managed to steal seven million dollars in diamonds from Wayne Powell's estate, and President Cutler was the best man at his wedding. Give me some credit. That place was loaded with more traps and guards than I could count. It took four hours of crawling on my belly through wet grass just to get to the front gates."
Webb remembered the job well. Those seven million dollars in diamonds were meant as a wedding present for Wayne Powell's wife, but instead went to Malevolence via Reed. Reed's cut from the job meant that they could survive for several months in both the Outlands and in Reed's double life in the city, which cost a lot of money to maintain, not to mention the improvements they were able to make to his stealth suit.
"Totally different! That was totally different! Powell was a friend of the president. He's the pansy CEO of Quantum Technologies! This is a real Department of Defense installation we're talking about here. You know as well as I do that Raptor is still hunting you for that job you pulled on Powell's estate. Imagine what the fallout from this will be like!"
Reed worked the second lock, a frown on his face. Raptor was one of the so-called 'heros' of this generation, a dark vigilante clad in body armor, a cape and cowl, often referred to in the news as "The Knight Of The Night". If Ultra was Malevolence's arch-nemesis, Raptor served as a foil for Oliver Reed.
"You changed the combinations didn't you?"
Exasperated, Webb threw up his hands.
"Yeah, I did. I figured it'd help keep you in shape."
Seconds later, Reed spun the final combination lock into place and opened the heavy steel door, which had to be at least two feet thick. Inside the specially reinforced closet hung a tight fitting black suit with white piping along the collar, arms and legs. The piping led to several red and black inlays that housed the special photocell receptors along his arms, chest and legs.
These receptors allowed the wearer of the uniform to project what the photocell receptors picked up in their surroundings and project that image onto the suit itself, allowing the wearer to render himself nearly invisible. They had recently modified the suit to reflect all types of scans, including infra-red, thermal, and X-rays.
Reed donned the outfit as he continued his conversation with his confidante.
"I can't turn this opportunity down, Jesse. I've gone as far on talent and ability in the Cabal as Mal will let me. To get any further, I mean really deep into the inner circle, I need to start playing both sides of the game. I can't just walk up to guys like Widowmaker and Praying Mantis and shoot them in the head. These guys got where they are today by being total psychotics, but not the stupid random type of crazy you see in thugs like Creeping Death or that idiot... what was his name? Corrosive-Man? The moron was taken out with one punch by Ultra.
The upper echelon of the Cabal, they're all unbelievably dangerous in their own way. Praying Mantis could just rip out my heart and show it to me before I die. Widowmaker could shoot me between the eyes from a mile away. Nosferatu, well, that nut-job would just tear my throat out with his fangs. I have be smarter than them, which means I also have to take big risks sometimes."
Reed donned the boots he and Jesse created for the suit. They featured extra thick rubber soles with an attached holster for his Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife. Once he was sure that they were on tight and snug, he donned the gloves that were more deserving of the name 'gauntlets', and a special headpiece that featured yellow lenses worn over the eyes. These allowed him to see in near total darkness. Finally, he donned the black backpack that housed his other gear, including lock-picks, a first-aid kit, and even a parachute. Other than the knife in his bolt holster, the only weaponry he carried were a pair of razor-sharp, nearly unbreakable Sai in holsters on his hips.
"So, are you in this with me or not?" Reed asked.
Exasperated, Jesse took a final shot of ouzo before answering.
"Yeah, I'm in. You're going to try this anyway and God knows you won't succeed without me, so what choice do I have?"
Reed offered a differential tip of his head and a smile to his ally.
At just that moment, Reed's cell phone rang. He immediately recognized the number on his call display.
The voice on the other end was a husky, sexy timbre that Reed had always been attracted to. It was the voice that first got Claire Fontana noticed as a reporter on the 'Freedom News Radio Network' three years ago. Since that time Claire graduated to television news reporting for 'Freedom Television', a series of networks controlled by the government that aired only pre- approved programs, all politically slanted to lull the viewer into subscribing to President Cutler's views of the world.
"Honey, it's Claire. I'm afraid I can't make dinner. The President is going to confer the medal of honor on Ultra tonight and I've been assigned to cover it! Are you excited for me or what?"
Reed sighed heavily. For months now he'd been trying to seduce the beautiful Claire Fontana when living his second identity in the 'real world'. She even knew him by a different name: John Sousa, an identity he purchased years ago. He had no real love for her, but considered her a conquest unlike most other women.
Like so many, the blonde, blue-eyed reporter was an avid supporter of President Cutler's regime, nearly fanatically so, and Reed considered bedding the young woman to be a feather in his cap that he could be proud of. Reed enjoyed the thought of turning this conservative beauty into a panting sexual beast. He'd come close on several occasions, but Claire's job always came first, especially when it came to reporting on Ultra. Reed didn't mind. His job always came first, too.
"So, Ultra is getting another medal, huh?" Reed asked.
"Of course. He deserves it, I'd say. He deserves as many medals as we can give him. He's keeping America safe from the perverts and communists."
'Well, at least I know where that stupid prick Ultra will be tonight.' Reed thought to himself.
"Okay, hon. We'll do dinner another time. I'll find some other way to entertain myself."
The first few minutes of a job often determined how the rest of the night would work out. If things went poorly, then Reed would bet that the job would be botched before night's end. If things went well, morale stayed high and as long as you didn't do anything stupid, chances were things would work out in the end.
Utilizing the coordinates in the file given to him by Malevolence, Reed found the alleyway grate that led to the possible entrance to the underground train depot. It was a tight squeeze, but he managed to slide down into the pipe and replace the grate.
The first rule: leave no sign of your passing.
Doors and windows left ajar often acted as red flags to guards or investigating officials. Thus, Reed's first concern was to leave no sign that he had ever passed through this area. Slowly, he made his way down the pipe, tapping the side occasionally for signs of weakness. He consulted the map, which Jesse scanned for him and programmed into the display monitor that was concealed in his right gauntlet, along with other equipment necessary for his work. The red 'x' on the map and the blinking GPS coordinates informed him that he was at the proper point to access the train depot.
After a few minutes, Reed placed the minute charges at the designated spots, which would result in a blast that would not only maximize the damage to the tunnel, but also minimize the sound output. He picked up the remote timer off his belt and moved away from the explosives. For good measure he cranked the 'audio dampeners' in his suit to maximum. When he was sure that he was at a safe distance, he thumbed the remote control.
A dull 'thump' and a cloud of smoke echoed throughout the pipe as the explosives unleashed their power. After the dust settled, Reed made his way back to the area and examined the hole. It was just barely large enough to crawl through. On the other side of the tunnel was a brick wall, and the masonry was beginning to crumble. With audio dampeners dialed up to full, Reed unleashed several kicks to the wall. The brickwork crumbled and toppled inward.
Seconds later, Reed was inside the train depot, located in a forgotten storage closet of some kind. He consulted the timer on his gauntlet monitor. Everything was working right on schedule. He took a few minutes to place many of the bricks that he had kicked away back in the wall, hoping as always to conceal his point of entry. There was no profit in revealing the enemy's security holes to them when you could conceal them and exploit them again at another time.
Reed slowly made his way into the hallway beyond and found himself in a typical military installation. Drab and colorless, the only decoration being a plaque on the wall featuring the modified U.S. government seal.
Since the time of the petroleum wars and the 'realignment' of America's 'traditional values', the eagle pictured on the seal now held a set of arrows in both claws, rather than the olive branch in one and arrows in the other. The banner over the eagle read 'In God We Obey'.
A small duty desk sat across the room, which measured about thirty feet wide. Beyond that was a hallway leading to the duct work he would have to infiltrate. An armed guard dressed in full kevlar armor sat at the desk, while another four soldiers milled about, apparently on their breaks. Reed counted at least ten other soldiers following patrol routes from one end of the hallway to the other.
Reed slowly inched his way out into the hall, keeping to the shadows at all times. If he got caught at this point, they'd stop the train or turn it around, robbing him forever of his chance at the prize. He laid in wait, draped in shadow and hidden from prying eyes, watching the guards go about their business. Before long, they returned to their patrol routes, appearing in pairs in the hallway approximately every fifteen minutes.
"Jesse, can you hear me?" Reed whispered into his voice activated communicator, embedded in the neck lining of his suit.
"Five by five, you crazy bag of crap. How are things underground?" Came the reply.
"Busy. It's like an ant farm down here."
"You know what they say, Ollie. Insects and vermin thrive underground. According to the intel Malevolence gave you, you have nine minutes before you have to be in position. Think you can make it?"
Reed assessed the situation. The hallway was not well lit and rife with shadows. If he was careful, he could make it past them all and to the duct work. The true predicament he suffered under was that he didn't know if he had the time to be careful.
"I'm gonna try. Wish me luck."
Reed grimaced slightly at his partner's shouting. Clearly, he'd partaken of too much ouzo before the mission. He doubted it would effect the Jesse's work. The man was a champion drinker. He did own a bar, after all. Sometimes, Jesse's drinking actually increased his level of proficiency. Reed could only hope that this was one of those times.
Slowly and carefully, Reed crept through the shadows. His boots made no sound on the tiled floor, but the soldiers proved easy to hear, their combat boots creating a 'tik tak' sound effect that echoed through the halls.
Suddenly, the guard at the desk seemed to notice something. Reed had encountered it before, a change in air pressure that often signaled that something had changed in a person's surroundings. Instantly, he froze. The soldier was looking straight at him. Ever so slowly, he crept backward, swathing himself in shadow. In situations like this, it was never good to hold your breath. Instead, he drew breath slowly and regularly.
For a full three minutes, the soldier looked about the room, his glare intensifying whenever his eyes fell on the shadows where Reed was concealed. Finally, the soldier seemed to convince himself that no one else was in the room. Reed waited another thirty seconds before continuing on.
The alert guard had delayed him several minutes. Even now, the train was hurtling towards his position, and he had several soldiers to make his way past before he could achieve his goal. From there on, it only got harder.
Reed reached the entrance to another hallway that branched off from the main office. The only problem was that there were no shadows for him to move in. A well placed light fixture recessed in the wall illuminated the area perfectly. From his gauntlet, Reed produced a 'sound grenade', another of Jesse's creations. The device was, in essence, a tiny sphere with a microchip inside that produced a specific sound. The sound of rat squeals emanated from this particular grenade. Once the sphere was activated, it played back the desired sound and self destructed, consumed by an odorless but fast acting acid, leaving no trace.
Silently, Reed rolled the grenade across the room to the far corner. The moment it came to a stop, a subtle rat squeal emanated from the area, instantly catching the guard's attention. With a disgusted look on his face, the soldier got up, machine gun in hand, and started over in the direction of the sound. At that precise moment Reed darted across the well lit entrance and back into the shadows, leaving the entrance behind.
A pair of soldiers approached, their boots making the distinctive 'tik tak' noise along the hall. Reed pressed his body flat against the wall and inched his way along. The soldiers passed him without even a glance in his direction.
Moments later, Reed found himself facing a grill that covered the duct work entrance on the wall. He darted across the hallway as quickly as he could and removed it. He climbed inside and replaced the grill just as the second team of soldiers rounded the corner coming the opposite way. He activated his communicator once more.
"Jesse, I'm in the ventilation ducts."
"Man, that took a long time. Are you getting old or something?"
"I should be so lucky as to grow old."
"Maybe you need a new job." Through his drunk talk, it was clear Jesse was trying to dissuade Oliver from continuing on with this assignment.
"No thanks. There's no job security in what I do, but at least very day is a new challenge when you're a thief. Who wants a job where it's nothing but dull repetition?"
"Let's just make sure we get to take advantage of the retirement plan, eh? Just get in and out of there as fast as you can, is all I'm saying."
"Don't worry. I have no intentions of hanging out for a few drinks."
After several more minutes worming his way through duct work, and more than his fair share of wrong turns, Reed found another grill in the ducts. This one was situated in the bottom, or 'floor', of the shaft. A padlock kept it shut at all times. Oliver could feel a slight rumble now, growling louder.
The train car was approaching.
Reed consulted the timer on his gauntlet. It read 'ETA: 1:32'. He had less than two minutes to pick the lock and get in position. Feverishly, he worked the lock with a set of picks he kept in a compartment in his backpack. The roar of the oncoming train grew louder and louder.
It was only at times like this, working essentially on his own, in the darkness, that Oliver Reed felt truly comfortable with himself. Even as a child, Reed sought the shadows.
Born an only child, Oliver Reed grew up painfully shy. It wasn't long after that when his father was discovered as a class 1 mutation, meaning that his particular ability proved no threat to anyone.
Even though Reed's father only had the ability to turn the pigment of his skin to any color he wished, like a chameleon, it was enough to have him and his pregnant wife banished to the Outlands forever. It was there that young Oliver Reed first learned to steal, in hopes of feeding his family.
The rumble of the train was nearly deafening now. Reed popped the lock and tore the grate free. He glanced down the tunnel he had just uncovered. It extended into the darkness for as far as he could see. Reed consulted his gauntlet. The display read: 'ETA: 11 seconds'.
Reed crossed his arms over his chest and stepped into the blackness, embracing it like a lover. In the pitch black, his fall seemed to take forever. Finally, beneath him, he could see slats of light shining through the final grate at the bottom of the air shaft. Reed extended his legs and jutted out his heels.
Eight seconds after launching himself into the nothingness, Reed's boots impacted fully with the grate, kicking it open. He tumbled through what seemed a glaring amount of light and braced himself for impact. He alighted perfectly on the train's roof as it barreled along underground.
"And it only gets harder from here," Reed muttered to himself. The clanging sound of metal on metal assaulted his ears. There was no worry about anyone hearing him now. The man known as The Wraith scrambled deftly along the top of the train until he found what he was looking for, a hatch that would lead him inside.
Reed allowed himself a quick smile. To have even made it this far was impressive. Now all he had to do was get in and get out without being shot or even worse... captured alive. To ensure that he didn't drop in on anyone, Reed removed a length of fibreoptic cable with a camera placed at the end. He attached the cable to his gauntlet and hooked it into the display pad. When that was complete he opened the hatch ever so slightly and edged the cable inside.
There seemed to be no one in sight. Reed fished the cable back in and replaced it in its compartment. Seconds later he removed the hatch and dropped down, soundlessly, inside the train car. He was only just replacing the hatch cover when the compartment door slid open and two patrolling soldiers stepped inside.
As quickly as possible without sacrificing his silence, Reed pushed the hatch cover back into place and pressed himself up against the wall. His suit immediately changed color, matching the steel grey pattern on the wall. The two patrolling soldiers walked right on by and into the next compartment without taking notice of anything unusual.
When he was sure they wouldn't double back, Reed relaxed and his suit returned to its normal color. He chose the door the soldiers had entered through, preferring to head away from them. Two compartments down he found his goal, the safe Malevolence told him about and the terminal access to open it.
Working as fast as he possible could, Reed removed a short piece of USB cable and attached it to the terminal. The monitor display read 'Enter Password'.
With the touch of a button, his onboard computer began to cycle through its hacking program, trying to access the password protocols. As he watched the program cycle through the endless possibilities, the display nearly ground to a halt. He swore under his breath and activated his comm unit.
"Jesse, are you getting this? I'm on a tight schedule here and I don't think my onboard's got enough to break the password before the next patrol comes through."
Jesse's voice came over Reed's earpiece crystal clear, a small miracle he thanked his lucky stars for. The DOD wasn't running any jamming devices in their area.
"Yeah, I see it. Government encryption doesn't like scumbags like us. Linking with you now to give you more juice. Hey, Oliver, be like the wind on this one, huh?"
"As much as I like you, Jesse, this techno-thievery tries my patience. I'll move as fast as you do. The whole damn world is on a hard drive now. When did geeks and nerds take over the world anyway?"
"The minute you tough guys turned your back on us, that's when. Never turn your back on a nerd."
Reed swore under his breath once more.
"Just get it done, man. Geeks and nerds may have taken over the world, but it's still tough guys like me out here risking their asses. I don't have all day here."
The moment Jesse Webb added his computing power to Reed's onboard system through a remote wireless linkup, Oliver could see the program display speed up considerably as it cycled through all the possible permutations for the password. Back in the relative safety of the Outlands, Jesse was speed-writing his own program to hack the DOD password protocols.
After what seemed like an eternity, the monitor on the terminal read 'Password Accepted'. A recessed alcove in the wall slid open, revealing a metal case, Reed's prize.
"Just like buttah. Thanks, my man."
"Open, says me," Reed muttered to himself as he reached in and grabbed the case.
At that moment, Jesse's panicked shouting assaulted him. His shouting was so loud and jarring, Reed nearly jumped out of his skin, fearful that someone else would hear his partner in crime.
"Reed! You hear me? Haul ass out of there! Comm chatter just went through the roof!"
From the compartments beyond, Oliver Reed could clearly make out the familiar footfalls of combat boots headed his way. He could feel it in his bones. They knew he was there.
"Damn! Say what you will about President Cutler. He's a fascist megalomaniac, but he makes the gestapo run on time," Reed muttered into his comm unit as he looked about for some place to hide.
The compartment door slid open just as Reed darted into the corner. Two soldiers with their weapons at the ready stalked inside, searching the shadows for their prey.
Mistake or not, this time Oliver Reed made sure to hold his breath.
In a secret bunker far beneath a mountain in Virginia, Gregory Newcastle III carried the dossier marked 'top secret' into the glass enclosed meeting room where four other agents, three men and one woman, awaited him. Newcastle was arriving late, and he liked it that way. He savored letting the other agents under his command know that he was in charge and only he had the luxury of arriving late.
This was their first meeting. Newcastle begged the director to let him lead the task force, and as usual, got his wish. For decades, the Newcastle family were as close to American royalty as one could get. The last three generations of Newcastle men were all heavily involved in government work. Newcastle's grandfather served as vice-president. His great grandfather was a war hero. His father... he preferred not to think of his father.
As he approached the meeting room he assessed the agents assigned to his command. The woman especially, caught his eye. He knew her name to be Agent Shannon Moore. The dusky brunette wore her hair long, down past her shoulders. He liked that. It reminded him of his sister.
Newcastle pushed the door open and tossed the dossier in the air. It landed on the surface of the large round conference table and caught their attention immediately. As one, all four of the agents looked to Newcastle. He noticed that they couldn't take their eyes off his arms. He hated that.
Newcastle's arms were no longer made of flesh and blood. They had been replaced with a set of bionic replacements sheathed in a silver alloy. Gregory Newcastle III hated that no one looked him in the eye upon their first meeting. He had trained hard. He was a mass of rippling muscle with a handsome, if often cruel, face. People should look him in the eye, not at his grotesque arms.
"Gentlemen and lady, thank you for being so prompt. Make no mistake, I expect you to be more than prompt while you're under my command. You'll be putting in a lot of overtime on this one."
He pointed to the folder, which was stamped with the words: 'Wraith - Classified - Eyes Only' in block red letters.
"I'm agent Gregory Newcastle III and I have been assigned to lead this task force. I can assure you that the capture of our target will not prove to be a simple assignment. He has eluded us for years, but I can assure you that we will succeed where others have failed."
Newcastle's artificial muscles flexed under his jacket. Whoever had created these artificial appendages went to the trouble of making them appear intimidating. That was the only thing about his arms that Newcastle enjoyed: the intimidation factor. He brought his fist down hard on the table, causing every item on its surface to jump ever so slightly into the air. Now they were looking in his eyes, rather than at his arms.
"You may ask me how I know this. The answer is simple: I have a rather personal stake in the capture of the world's greatest thief... The Wraith!"